Fay: Pete says Bench, Morgan, Perez are the best ever. But do the stats support him?

The Big Four anchored the Big Red Machine
Fay: Pete says Bench, Morgan, Perez are the best ever. But do the stats support him?
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jul 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-03 07:00:22-04

CINCINNATI -- When Pete Rose had his statue dedicated a few weeks back, he took the podium three times -- once for the unveiling, once for the press conference and once for the on-field ceremony.

One point he made each time: The statues of the Big Four from the Big Red Machine included the best catcher of all time in Johnny Bench, the best second baseman of all time in Joe Morgan and the best Cuban player of all time in Tony Perez.

The fourth likeness, that of Rose, represents the all-time hits leader. Rose's 4,256 hits are an undisputed fact. But you won't get any argument around Cincinnati on his contention about Bench, Morgan and Perez.

But do the numbers and the awards support what Rose said?

Let's take a look:


Rose went the furthest with Bench.

"He's not only the greatest catcher who ever lived," Rose said. "He's the greatest catcher who ever will live."

That's high praise.

Bench was the first catcher to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Pudge Rodriguez became the second last year. Bench's vote total was 96 percent compared to 80 percent for Rodriguez.

Bench won two MVPs, a Rookie of the Year and a World Series MVP. He made 13 All-Star teams and won 10 Gold Gloves. He retired with 327 home runs as a catcher -- the most at the time.

One stat reflects how good he was at controlling the running game: In four World Series and five National League Championship Series, 15 base-runners would try to steal against Bench. He threw out 13 of them.

As good as Bench turned out to be, you can still wonder how good he might have been.

In 1970, he hit .293 with a league-leading 45 home runs and a league-leading 148 RBI. He won his first MVP.

In '72, he repeated as MVP, hitting .270 with a league-leading 40 home runs and 125 RBI. He hit the biggest home run of his career in the NL Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In the winter of '72, Bench had major surgery to remove a benign growth on his left lung. He never again hit 40 home runs, but he was still a productive run-producer. And he still tops the Reds all-time list in home runs (389) and RBI (1,376).

So Rose wasn't just talking.

As for being the "best to ever live," we'll see. It's worth noting that Joey Votto and Bryce Harper caught in high school, but they were immediately moved to first base and the outfield in the pros. Hitters like Bench are so valuable that most teams move them to other positions.


Without Morgan, the Big Red Machine would likely be a baseball footnote, not a legend. The Reds lost World Series in both 1970 and '72.

The trade that brought Morgan, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo to the Reds from the Houston Astros is widely credited with getting the BRM over the top.

The Reds won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and '76. Morgan was NL MVP both years. He was a perfect fit for the lineup. He led the NL both years in on-base percentage at .466 and .444.

That set up the big bats behind him.

Morgan was definitely the finest second baseman after the game was integrated. But players from the early era -- Rogers Hornsby (127.0), Eddie Collins (123.9) and Nap Lajoie (107.4) -- have higher WARs (Win Above Replacement) than Morgan's 100.3.

Hornsby, a .353 career hitter and two-time MVP, played 600 games at positions other than second.

The last three second basemen to get in -- Ryne Sandberg (67.5 WAR), Roberto Alomar (66.8) and Craig Biggio (65.1) -- aren't in Morgan's class.

So, at least among players Rose saw, Morgan was the best.


Perez is the only Cuban player in the Hall of Fame. That kind of ends the argument before it starts.

The only Cuban you could argue that's better than Perez is Luis Tiant. Tiant went 229-172 with a 3.30 ERA in his career. His WAR is higher than Perez's, 66.7 to 53.9.

Tiant won 20 games four times and lost 20 once. His best year was 1968, when he went 21-9 with a league-leading 1.60 ERA for Cleveland.

Perez and Tiant crossed paths in the 1975 World Series. Tiant won Game 1 for Boston, shutting out the Reds 6-0, and Game 4. Perez hit .179 in the series, but he had three home runs and seven RBI. One of the home runs was a two-run shot in Game 7 on a Bill Lee Eephus pitch. It cut the Boston lead to 3-2 and shifted the momentum to the Reds.

Perez made the Hall of Fame in 2000 on his 14th try, getting 77.2 percent of the vote.

Perez hit .279 with 379 home runs and 1,652 RBI in his career. You also have to factor in that he played an integral part in the Big Red Machine.

Rose got this one right as well.